Lessons in Reality TV Product Placement

Tune in to just about any reality TV series and you’ll get something more than your fix of fun. You’ll get product placement. I guarantee it. This television genre has embraced and perfected the integration of products into shows.

Regardless of how you feel about the concept, you have to admit there are some pretty creative executions out there. No longer are products simply slipped into the backdrop – they’re now featured as part of the content itself. Remember that ubiquitous Coca-Cola cup next to the “American Idol” judges? To date, the beverage brand has run several contests inviting viewers to design their own version of the “Judges Cup” for a chance to have it appear on the show.

From a marketing perspective, there are few better ways to promote one’s product than by showcasing it in a context that demonstrates its functionality and value. This is particularly true when a show and a brand share a common target audience, and the show brings with it an existing following and loyal fan base. A brand that’s equally likely to appeal to that audience is well-positioned to affect it in a meaningful way.

A recent study on product placement in reality TV that was conducted in Australia found it can indeed have a profound effect on consumers, and on their purchasing habits in particular. According to the Reality TV Insights Survey, while 66 percent of consumers think there is too much product placement in reality TV shows, 94 percent claim their purchasing behaviors have been influenced by what they’ve seen. And 60 percent of consumers have purchased a product post-viewing.

What happens, though, when those consumers see product placements translated for the web? Brands may be able to influence viewers through the small screen but can the image they create there sustain itself online? Is there enough of a payoff for those who follow a brand from a show to its site? And does its offline integration into reality TV correlate with what’s being expressed online?

This is one dilemma that isn’t entirely in the marketer’s hands. What happens on a show’s related site is the product of publisher negotiations, inventory availability, creative availability, and countless other factors. You may not have as much control over your cross-media product placement campaign as you would like, but that doesn’t mean you can’t approach it with a savvy strategy. And it certainly doesn’t mean that you won’t achieve your goals.

“Project Runway,” Intel, and HP “Make it Work”

Contestants on Lifetime’s “Project Runway” have been asked to make outfits out of materials purchased only in a pet store, and yet their design room couldn’t be more high tech. For three years now, the series has maintained a partnership with Intel and HP, with the two brands supplying technology that’s intended to facilitate the design process and inspire creativity. For instance, earlier this season the show’s designers were required to use it for a challenge in which they had to create their own textile print as well as film and produce a video to accompany the resultant fashion show.


On the program, the products play a significant role. Online, the two brands take things a step further by continuing to educate consumers about the products while also encouraging sales transactions. The “Rule the Runway Sweepstakes” may live on MyLifetime.com, but the page looks more like it belongs on one of the brands’ own sites. It includes product-specific banners and an entire gallery of HP products that link directly to the HP online store. Lesson: Take advantage of the consumer’s arrival online by urging her further down the purchasing funnel.

“The Amazing Race,” Travelocity, and Chocolate

Travelocity was well represented in the spring season of “The Amazing Race” with the usual trip prizes and advertising, but nothing about the partnership was more memorable to consumers than the brand’s mascot…when it was made entirely out of chocolate, that is. According to Nielsen, which ranks the effect of TV product placement on brand recall, the episode in which contestants had to create a chocolate Travelocity Gnome was named the most recalled reality TV in-program placement of its month.

It’s impossible to say how big a part the chocolate played in resonating with consumers, but certainly the fact that the gnome itself was prominently featured had major impact; after all, second on the list of placements with the best recall was Sprint’s feature on “Survivor: Redemption Island,” another patent example of a hands-on product integration. Lesson: It pays to be blatant. Consumers may say they prefer a subtle product placement, but deliver the image of your brand loud and clear and it’s more likely to stick.

Related reading

Vector graphic of a megaphone spewing out business themed items, such as a laptop, tablet, pen, @ symbol and smartphone